BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – China denounced a rare message from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Taiwan’s President as “wrong and very dangerous”, as tensions between the two sides flared anew over US overtures toward the democratically ruled island.
The Ministry of National Defence said in a statement on Wednesday (May 20) that the military would “take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard” China’s sovereignty, while the country’s Foreign Ministry separately threatened retaliation.
The warnings came after Mr Pompeo broke with past US practice on Tuesday and issued a statement congratulating Ms Tsai Ing-wen ahead of her inauguration to a second term as Taiwan’s President.
“China urges the US side to immediately correct its mistakes,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“The Chinese side will take necessary countermeasures to respond to the above-mentioned erroneous actions by the US side. And the US side should bear the consequences rising therefrom.”
While Washington has deep informal ties with Taipei and past secretaries of state including Mrs Hillary Clinton have met Taiwanese presidents, the US has avoided moves that could be seen as revising its decision to switch recognition to Beijing in 1979.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said Mr Pompeo, who referred to Ms Tsai as “president”, was the first sitting secretary of state to congratulate an incoming Taiwanese leader.
Taiwan has been one of the biggest flash points between the US and China since the Cold War, a dispute that has reemerged in recent weeks as the two sides feud over the spread of the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly signalled a desire to build stronger ties with Taipei, including an unprecedented phone call with Ms Tsai in December 2016, but also reaffirmed the US’s “one China” policy.
During her inauguration ceremony on Wednesday in Taipei, Ms Tsai urged China to “find a way to co-exist” with her government, while pledging to build the island’s international support and military capabilities.
Ms Tsai has refused to accept that both sides belong to “one China”, leading Chinese President Xi Jinping to sever formal ties with the island before her first inauguration four years ago.
In a series of agreements that led the US to establish ties with Beijing more than four decades ago, both sides left the status of Taiwan deliberately ambiguous.
The US recognised the People’s Republic as the “sole legal government of China”, while “acknowledging” Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.
Over the decades, China has repeatedly accused the US of violating that deal by selling arms to Taiwan or allowing Taiwanese officials to transit through American territory while visiting their dwindling roster of formal diplomatic partners.
The State Department on Wednesday approved the possible sale of 18 advanced torpedoes to Taiwan for an estimated cost of US$180 million (S$254.57 million), potentially to defend against increased Chinese naval traffic around the island.
Mr Pompeo referred to Taiwan as a “force for good in the world and a reliable partner”, sentiments echoed in statements by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and several US members of congress.
The two sides have been ruled separately since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists moved the Republic of China government to Taipei during the Chinese civil war seventy years ago.
Although trade and cultural ties have flourished, Taiwan and China remain military rivals and Beijing passed a law in 2005 asserting the right to use military force to prevent Taiwan’s formal independence.
“The US behaviour has seriously violated one-China principle and three joint communiques, severely interfered in China’s domestic affairs, severely damaged China-US military ties, and severely endangered peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said.
“We will never allow anyone, any organisation or any political party to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China at any time or in any form.”
China has increasingly policed actions by governments, companies and even celebrities that could be seen bestowing formal status on Taiwan’s government.
When Mr Xi held his landmark meeting with then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, they referred to each other as “Mister”.
The Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper struck an even more confrontational tone in a commentary on Wednesday, denouncing Mr Pompeo’s statement, warning that China now has the strength to “overwhelm the Taiwan military and deter the US military”.
“China is becoming more powerful, and our ability to claim sovereignty over Taiwan is certainly growing,” the Global Times said.
“At this time, the US and Taiwan want to play petty tricks at a low cost, which is too naive. We will make them feel pain in some places that they can’t think of.”